The Cry of Dereliction
‘And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’
Up to this point the narrative of the crucifixion has focused on the physical sufferings of Jesus: the flogging, the crown of thorns, and his immolation on the cross. Six hours have now passed since the nails were driven home. The crowd have jeered, darkness has covered the land, and now, suddenly, after a long silence, comes this anguished cry from the depths of the Saviour’s soul.
The words are an Aramaic-tinged quotation from Psalm Twenty-two, and although Matthew and Mark both offer a translation for the benefit of Gentile readers they clearly want us to hear the exact words that Jesus spoke. At his lowest ebb, his mind instinctively breathes the Psalter, and from it he borrows the words that express the anguish, not now of his body, but of his soul.
He bore in his soul, wrote Calvin, ‘the terrible torments of a condemned and lost man.’ (Institutes, II:XVI, 10). But dare we, on such hallowed ground, seek more clarity? There are certainly some very clear negatives. The forsaken-ness cannot mean, for example, that the eternal communion between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit was broken. God could not cease to be triune.
Neither could it mean that the Father ceased to love the Son: especially not here, and not now, when the Son was offering the greatest tribute of filial piety that the Father had ever received.
Nor again could it mean that the Holy Spirit had ceased to minister to the Son. He had come down upon him at his baptism not merely for one fleeting moment, but to remain on him (Jn. 1:32), and he would be there to the last as the eternal Spirit through whom the Son offered himself to God (Heb. 9:14).
And, finally, the words are not a cry of despair. Despair would have been sin. Even in the darkness God was, ‘My God’, and though there was no sign of him, and though the pain obscured the promises, somewhere in the depths of his soul there remained the assurance that God was holding him. What was true of Abraham was truer still of Jesus: against all hope, he in hope believed (Rom. 4:18).
Yet, with all these qualifiers, this was a real forsaking. Jesus did not merely feel forsaken. He was forsaken; and not only by his disciples, but by God himself. It was the Father who had delivered him up to Judas, to the Jews, to Pilate and, finally, to the cross itself. And now, when he had cried, God had closed his ears. The crowd had not stopped jeering, the demons had not stopped taunting, the pain had not abated. Instead, every circumstance bespoke the anger of God; and there was no countering voice. This time, no word came from heaven to remind him that he was God’s Son, and greatly loved. No dove came down to assure him of the Spirit’s presence and ministry. No angel came to strengthen him. No redeemed sinner bowed to thank him.
Who was he? He cries out in Aramaic, but he doesn’t use the greatest of all the Aramaic words, Abba. Even in the anguish of Gethsemane, distraught and overborne though he was, he had been able to use it (Mk.14:36). But not here. Like Abraham and Isaac going up to Mount Moriah, he and the Father had gone up to Calvary together. But now Abba is not there. Only El is there: God All-mighty, God All-holy. And he is before El, not now as his Beloved Son, but as the Sin of the World. That is his identity: the character in which he stands before Absolute Integrity. It is not that he bears some vague relation to sinners. He is one of them, numbered with transgressors. Indeed, he is all of them. He is sin (2 Cor. 5:21), condemned to bear its curse; and he has no cover. None can serve as his advocate. Nothing can be offered as his expiation. He must bear all, and El will not, cannot, spare him till the ransom is paid in full. Will that point ever be reached? What if his mission fails?
The sufferings of his soul, as the old divines used to say, were the soul of his suffering, and into that soul we can see but dimly. Public though the cry was, it expressed the intensely private anguish of a tension between the sin-bearing Son and his heavenly Father: the whirlwind of sin at its most dreadful, God forsaken by God.
But no less challenging than the torment in Jesus’ soul is his question, ‘Why?’
Is it the Why? of protest: the cry of the innocent against unjust suffering? The premise is certainly correct. He is innocent. But he has lived his whole life conscious that he is the sin-bearer and has to die as the redemption-price for the many. Has he forgotten that now?
Or is it the Why? of incomprehension, as if he doesn’t understand why he’s here? Has he forgotten the eternal covenant? Perhaps! His mind, as a human mind, could not be focused on all the facts at the same time, and for the moment the pain, the divine anger and the fear of eternal perdition (the Cross being God’s last word) occupy all his thoughts.
Or is it the Why? of amazement, as he confronts a dreadfulness he could never have anticipated? He had known from the beginning that he would die a violent death (Mk. 2:20), and in Gethsemane he had looked it in the eye, and shuddered. But now he is tasting it in all its bitterness, and the reality is infinitely worse than the prospect. Never before had anything come between him and his Father, but now the sin of the whole world has come between them, and he is caught in this dread-ful vortex of the curse. It is not that Abba is not there, but that he is there, as the Judge of all the earth who could condone nothing and could not spare even his own Son (Rom. 8:32).
Now, Jesus’ mind is near the limits of its endurance. We, sitting in the gallery of history, are sure of the outcome. He, suffering in human nature the fury of Hell, is not. He is standing where none has stood before or since, enduring at one tiny point in space and in one tiny moment of time, all that sin deserved: the curse in unmitigated concentration.
But then, suddenly, it is over. The sacrifice is complete, the curtain torn and the way into the Holiest opened once and for all; and now Jesus’ joy finds expression in the words of another psalm, Psalm 31:5. In the original, it had not contained the word, Abba, but Jesus inserts it: ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ (Lk. 23:46) We have no means of knowing what intervened between the two cries. We know only that the Cup is drained and the curse exhausted, and that the Father now proudly holds out his hands to the spirit of his Beloved Son.
‘Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne’ (Rev. 5:6).
This meditation was first posted on the Desiring God web-site on Good Friday, 3 April 2015.